Last month, on the same date, EMI Music released two fascinating rock albums—one a new recording by a '60s rock band and the other a remastered classic by one of the most influential artists of the '70s. The new one is the Beach Boys' That's Why God Made the Radio, and the remastered CD is David Bowie's masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Startdust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Both are concept albums—one celebrating the romantic possibilities of an endless summer and the other tracing the decadent undermining of an alien who arrives on earth to offer hope five years before the planet's destruction.
While the two albums may seem like polar opposites, they actually share several common threads: romantic drama, experimentation, the leveraging of earlier musical themes and a passion for basic rock and roll. Both also dwell on the aging process, the unpredictability of human nature and the mysterious excitement of sex.
The Beach Boys' new album is loaded with joyous vocal harmony, medium-tempo love songs and easy-to-understand lyrics. Which in today's music environment is a completely alien concept. With its happy-hour spirit and youth-obsessed themes, the album is a slow Pacific Coast sunset, complete with subtle musical swatches from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound" hits, The Young Rascals, Paul McCartney and Wings and others. The album is unabashed over-60 rocker music and songs you'd want to come through the speakers of a fully restored Caddy convertible while tooling around Newport Beach.
It's only natural to want to compare That's Why God Made the Radio with the group's earlier albums or Pet Sounds and Smile, Brian Wilson's towering collages. But trying to rank the new album would be a foolish mistake. Rather, you'd be better off enjoying it as a distillation of the Beach Boys' sound as imagined by Brian today and the pop- and folk-rock sounds that have excited him most over the years.
Think of this as an adult glass of warm milk or a color composite photograph of your youth. If you're like me, you may not get the point until you listen to the album about three times. Your first listen will make you think it's way too simplistic. Your second listen will make you think the messages are sappy. But by your third listen, you will start to hear revelations about Brian's constructivist approach to production and songwriting as well as his religious adoration of simplicity and clarity. [Pictured above: The Beach Boys]
While That's Why God Made the Radio is a yearning for pre-digital times—when teens obsessed over dating, cars and the beach—David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust is science friction, a gothic interpretation of a pre-ordained future and a vice-ridden messenger. If you're unfamiliar with Bowie or never gave him a chance because of what you've seen on album covers, I urge you to give a listen. Bowie's brilliance rests with a beat-operatic approach to rock. Lyrics aren't meant to be analyzed as much as experienced, letting them roll around in your head. Check your modern demands for meaning at the door.
From Five Years, the opening track that lays out the album's storyline and earth's pending demise, to Rock & Roll Suicide, the closer, Bowie's songwriting and arranging prowess are unrivaled. Consider the chorus to Soul Love...
Love is careless in it's choosing Sweeping over cross a babyLove descends on those defencelessIdiot love will spark the fusionInspirations have I noneJust to touch the flaming doveAll I have is my love of loveAnd love is not loving
Again, don't let logic ruin the party. Just absorb the crashing sounds of words and dig how the music rises and falls with tension. Like the Beach Boys new album, Ziggy Stardust is about love. But unlike That's Why God Made the Radio, which is really about the past as a future ideal, Ziggy Stardust takes place at a time when tomorrow no longer exists and love is now and icy.
At any rate, both albums will touch you, from different directions. Which is why it's most interesting to listen to them one after the next. They're both heartfelt, rich with yearning imagery and, above all, honest. [Pictured above: Brian Wilson]
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Beach Boys' That's Why God Made the Radio (Capitol EMI) at Amazon here.
You'll find the 40th Anniversary remastering of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (EMI) at Amazon here. How's the remastering? More true to the LP than earlier Virgin releases, with greater dimensional detail. Earlier releases tended to emphasize the instrumentation over the vocals.
JazzWax note: if you fall in love with Ziggy Stardust, rent from Netflix Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a 1973 documentary and concert movie by D.A. Pennebaker.
JazzWax clips: Here's From There to Back Again, my favorite track off the Beach Boys' new album, That's Why God Invented the Radio...
Here's a live version of Starman, from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust...